A Decade of the “War on Terror” and the “Responsibility to Protect”: The Global Debate about Military Intervention

In 2001, before September 11, it seemed as though the world was moving inexorably toward a new humanitarian norm of military intervention in cases of massive human suffering, and in particular, genocide, ethnic cleansing, and large-scale human rights violations. Several reports were published in 2000 and 2001 that strengthened the case for humanitarian intervention.1 The Independent International Commission on Kosovo concluded in 2000 that the NATO intervention in Yugoslavia aimed at preventing the ethnic cleansing of Albanians was “illegal but legitimate” and that there was a need to take measures to close the gap between legality and legitimacy.2 That same year, the Report of the Panel on United Nations Peace Operations (Brahimi Report) put forward practical proposals to improve the capacity of the United Nations to respond to crises.3 And in 2001, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty came up with the concept of “responsibility to protect” (RTP)—the idea that the international community has a responsibility to protect civilians when their own states fail to do so.4

This emerging norm, it can be argued, was an expression of global civil society, the outcome of a global political debate on intervention that included humanitarian and human rights NGOs; individuals such as Bernard Kouchner, who co-founded Médecins sans Frontières; various think tanks and commissions, such as the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the International Crisis Group; as well as, of course, the traditional and new media.5 In particular, the genocides in Rwanda (1994) and Srebrenica (1995) had shocked the “conscience of the world,” in the words of then–UN secretary-general Kofi Annan,6 and had led to a new determination among policymakers and policy shapers that these tragic episodes should never be allowed to be repeated.

The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, shook the kaleidoscope of global political debate. September 11 marked the beginning of the “War on Terror” and muscular interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as indirect, or less overt, interventions in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. The rhetoric of the War on Terror has been used to justify Israeli attacks on Palestinians, the Russian intervention in Chechnya, and other interventions. And in many countries, including the United States, the War on Terror has been associated with a range of measures increasing surveillance and restricting human rights. In particular, President Bush acquired far-reaching powers that allowed him to detain suspects for indefinite periods and establish the notorious prison at Guantanamo.

The consequence was a polarization of opinion between those who supported the War on Terror and those who were against it. This debate divided the human rights and humanitarian community and squeezed the space for those who favored the norm of humanitarian intervention. Nevertheless, this was also a period when responsibility to protect and associated concepts, such as human security, peacebuilding, and stabilization, were increasingly adopted by international institutions and governments, even in the United States, and the momentum of the ideas of the 1990s was carried forward.

The Kaleidoscope of Global Public Debate

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan called into question the viability of humanitarian intervention. Even in the case of Libya an intervention that was supposed to protect civilians ended up as a war on the side of the rebels. With the scattering of the consensus around humanitarian intervention, it is possible to identify three broad positions that run through the debates about military intervention in the twenty-first century.

The first position is that of the warriors—the unqualified supporters of military intervention. They include the neocons and the liberal internationalists and those involved in the Save Darfur campaign. The warriors see the use of force as a neutral instrument, a black box, that can bring about the desired results, and they tend to disregard the consequences of the use of military force.

The second position is that of the anti-interventionists. They include pacifists, especially in religious communities, who fear that any use of military force will cause suffering, which is morally unacceptable, and therefore oppose war on principle. This encompasses those who define themselves as left wing, especially those young people who participate in the World Social Forum. They are skeptical that governments can have humanitarian motives and see the rhetoric of responsibility to protect or human security as a cover for great power, especially an American neocolonial agenda. A similar view is held by Islamists, who see the main interventions as being directed against Muslims and argue that the War on Terror is a civilizational clash between the West and Islam in which concepts like RTP and human security have been co-opted. Neither of these last two groups is pacifist, and some of their adherents support the use of force to resist occupation in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Palestine.The anti-interventionists also include realists who argue that states should pursue their national interests and that the suffering of non-nationals is no concern.

Those who support this position often favor negotiations and tend to be more concerned about the wrongs inflicted by the West than about tyrannical behavior by non-Western leaders like Saddam Hussein or Muammar Qaddafi. They are also highly critical of the International Criminal Court (ICC). The left argues that the court is one-sided, focusing on crimes against humanity rather than war crimes and on conflicts in poor countries rather than the crimes of Western warmongers. Islamists and cultural relativists argue that criminals should be judged in their local contexts according to local conceptions of justice and that the court imposes a Western conception of justice. Pacifists and realists argue that in cases like Bashir in Sudan or Qaddafi in Libya, indictment provides a disincentive to negotiate peace since peace would mean arrest and capture. They also argue that the cases move very slowly, giving a platform to people who espouse extremist ideas.

The third position, that of the humanitarians, has been pulled apart by this debate. Some, the liberal interventionists, have joined the warrior camp. Others, such as David Rieff, have become disillusioned and cynical about humanitarian intervention and have joined the anti-interventionist camp. Those who remain, largely in the human rights movement, argue that humanitarian intervention is different from war and has to be conducted appropriately. None of the interventions that have been subject to public debate, except perhaps the eventual UN/African Union mission in Darfur, could be described as humanitarian. In both Afghanistan and Iraq, the use of military force made things worse. In the case of Libya, it is still far from clear whether an overthrow of Qaddafi will be an end to conflict in that country or the prelude to a long war.

The humanitarians link humanitarian norms to the extension of international law and international justice and argue that states do have an interest in a law-governed world. In response to criticisms of the ICC, they suggest that there should be more emphasis on crimes committed by Western governments, especially the consequences of the use of air power; that international justice supplements local justice and upholds universal norms in situations where local justice can often be subverted by local power brokers;7 and that peace negotiations in the context of contemporary forms of violence can never bring sustainable peace unless accompanied by justice mechanisms.

Civil society groups within conflict zones, whether in Afghanistan or Iraq or Darfur, tend to be close to the humanitarian position. It is often civil society that calls for interventions to protect them from violence, but at the same time, they are often the victims of the excessive use of force. Yet those who take part in interventions tend to neglect civil society, focusing on dealing with those responsible for violence or remaining within the protective walls of international compounds. If the humanitarian camp is to regain its influential role, greater involvement of local civil society in international debates is critically important.

Responsibility to Protect and Other Stories

While Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as Darfur, dominated the global public debate on intervention during the first decade of the twenty-first century, there were many other interventions in crisis situations throughout the world. Indeed, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute database of multilateral peace operations includes nearly six hundred such missions between 2000 and 2009.8 At the time of this writing, some hundred thousand troops are engaged in UN operations worldwide. Other organizations undertaking missions include the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group, and the Organization of American States, to name a few.

Both within international institutions and among governments, there has been a growing effort to mainstream concepts like RTP, stabilization, or human security and to develop, or at least to conceptualize, appropriate capabilities, and RTP was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2005. Since his appointment as secretary-general in January 2007, Ban Ki-moon has said that he will “spare no effort to operationalize the responsibility to protect.”9 He has appointed special advisors on genocide prevention and responsibility to protect and established a $2 million Responsibility to Protect Fund supported by Sweden, the United Kingdom, and Australia. In January 2009 he produced a report for debate at the UN General Assembly that set out strategies for implementing RTP, and on September 14, 2009, the General Assembly authorized the secretary-general to seek further financial and institutional resources for implementing and mainstreaming RTP within the United Nations.

It is now standard for Security Council resolutions to refer to the protection of civilians, although the Libya resolution is the first to name the protection of civilians as the main goal, and almost all current UN peacekeepers are now mandated to protect civilians. However, an independent report on the protection of civilians in UN operations finds that there is still insufficient clarity of mandates; a lack of planning, training, and preparation; and a lack of appropriate structures, resources, and tools, despite the perseverance of “many dedicated and creative individuals.”10

In the European Union, the new Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP—formerly the European Security and Defense Policy), initially developed following the Anglo-French summit in Saint-Malo during the Kosovo war, has been designed for the so-called Petersberg tasks, that is to say, multilateral interventions in crisis situations, rather than the defense of borders. The CSDP incorporates the concept of human security, understood as upholding human rights, and the EU has been developing combined military/civilian capabilities. Indeed, it is the first institution to have a combined military/civilian planning cell, and it has pioneered civilian crisis management, largely consisting of missions aimed at restoring or establishing a rule of law and system of justice. It has undertaken some twenty-five missions, including EU NAVFOR (European Union Naval Force) Somalia–Operation ATALANTA, the current military operation to counter piracy in Somalia, and the missions to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Chad, which were considered successful in using a robust approach to preventing massacres and maintaining order, if too short.11

And in Africa, the African Union, which succeeded the Organization of African Unity, has institutionalized a right of humanitarian intervention in “grave circumstances, namely, war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity” in Article 4(h) of the Constitutive Act and established a Peace and Security Council and an African Standby Force. This represents a considerable change from the earlier insistence on non-interference. A number of African countries, including Botswana, Ghana, Lesotho, Nigeria, Rwanda, and Tanzania, have formally endorsed the responsibility to protect.

A particularly significant development in the twenty-first century has been the establishment of the International Criminal Court. Indeed, both by enthusiasts and critics, the ICC is increasingly bracketed together with the responsibility to protect. The Rome Statute, the legal basis for the court, was adopted by 120 states on July 17, 1998, and entered into force on July 1, 2002. As of September 2011, some 117 states have signed and ratified the ICC. Those who have neither signed nor ratified include the United States, China, and India (the United States “unsigned” the treaty). The establishment of the ICC was part of the general pressure for humanitarian norms following the war in Bosnia and the Rwandan genocide.12

The new emphasis on crimes against humanity has generated a whole new machinery of transitional justice.13 So far, three state parties have referred situations in their territories to the ICC—Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Central African Republic—and in addition, the Security Council has referred the situations in Darfur and Libya to the court, and the prosecutor has opened an investigation into Kenya. Some twenty-three people have been indicted. In addition to the ICC, the Yugoslav and Rwandan tribunals established in the 1990s have continued their work. The highly public arrests of Vojislav Šešelj, the leader of the Serbian Radical Party, Radovan Karadžić, the former leader of the Serb Republic, and Ratko Mladić, the general responsible for the Srebrenica massacre, represent further achievements in the institutionalization of humanitarian norms.

Alongside these multilateral initiatives, there have been efforts within many countries to reconceptualize security as something broader than national defense. There has been much discussion about new or nontraditional threats or risks and the appropriate capabilities needed to complement military force; even countries like Russia and China refer to nontraditional threats. And the United States too has begun to move away from classic defense thinking. Members of the Bush administration argued when they first came to power that it was not the job of the military to undertake constabulary duties or nation building.14 However, the experience of Afghanistan and Iraq has led to profound rethinking in the Pentagon. General David Petraeus (now the director of the CIA) produced a new counterinsurgency manual in 2006 that emphasized the protection of civilians, the need for a rule of law, and the integration of military and civilian capabilities.15 Secretary of defense Robert Gates has been “rebalancing” the defense budget so as to give more space to these new roles. And the State Department under Hillary Clinton has introduced a Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (titled Leading through Civilian Power) to complement the Quadrennial Defense Review and plan civilian capabilities for crisis management.16

However, for most countries these tasks are often seen as secondary to the core task of defending nations from attack by a foreign enemy. It is argued that the “high end” of defense spending—advanced equipment and war-fighting capabilities—can be applied at the “low end” but not the other way round. The financial crisis has meant a closing in on core tasks, thereby weakening an already fragile capability for the new crisis tasks. Even those directly engaged in international operations, especially the military, recognize the need for change, but few political leaders are ready to embrace new approaches. After Afghanistan and Iraq and the weakening of the humanitarian consensus, there is an increased reluctance to commit resources to difficult and risky missions. For example, it is not clear whether it was political reluctance to commit ground troops or lack of capacity that explains the reliance on airstrikes in the Libya case.

The terms “responsibility to protect” and “human security” have entered the political lexicon. Of course, it is true they are used to justify interventions undertaken for quite different purposes. Thus the Sri Lankan government used the language of RTP to justify its final bloody defeat of the Tamil Tigers. Similarly, the Russian government used both RTP and human security to justify its intervention in Georgia and its breakaway republic of Ossetia, couched in terms of the “allegedly ongoing genocide” of Ossetians as well as the protection of Russian citizens (who were actually Ossetians who had been given Russian passports). Although the war was started by Georgia with an artillery attack on Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, in the early morning of August 8, 2008, the Russian response went well beyond the protection of Ossetians or those who had been given Russian passports, involving “massive and extended military action” reaching deep into Georgian territory, as well as large-scale human rights violations.17

This is not necessarily an argument against using the terms. The use of the language offers a standard by which such interventions can be judged. In other words, rather than abandoning these concepts because they have been misused, it is important to claim back their meaning and apply them as criticisms of such actions.


The decade ended with the political death of Osama Bin Laden, the nonviolent demonstrations that spread throughout the Middle East in the spring of 2011, and the physical death of Bin Laden in the American raid on a house in Pakistan on May 2, 2011.

Alongside the global debate about humanitarian intervention, there has been a debate in the Arab world about resistance to occupation: when is it right to use force to resist human rights violations by a state or by foreign forces? For many young people, Bin Laden and the jihadist movement have discredited Islam. The extraordinary commitment to nonviolence in the protests in Tahrir Square and elsewhere is proof of the outcome of that debate.

Despite the visibility of violent conflicts, especially in Afghanistan and Iraq, the number of what the Human Security Report calls high-intensity conflicts (more than a thousand deaths in battle per year) has declined dramatically over the last two decades, by some 78 percent between 1988 and 2008.18 The Human Security Report attributes this decline largely to the spread of global norms against war and interventions and to the greater activism of the United Nations and other multilateral institutions. Nevertheless, there has been an increase in the overall number of conflicts in the years since 2000, and the decline of battle deaths may be because violence is increasingly directed against civilians and statistics on civilian casualties are notoriously poor. In particular, the growing privatization of violence has meant that conflicts may be more low level but also more pervasive and intractable.

If the norm of nonviolence is to be nurtured and protected, especially in the turbulent period ahead in the context of economic crisis and climate change, there needs to be a serious debate about the means required to prevent violence and protect people. Perhaps the end of the decade of the War on Terror will open up space for the revival of the humanitarian idea.

Mary Kaldor is professor of global governance and director of the Civil Society and Human Security Research Unit at the London School of Economics and author of many books, including The Ultimate Weapon Is No Weapon: Human Security and the Changing Rules of War and Peace, New and Old Wars: Organized Violence in a Global Era, and Global Civil Society: An Answer to War. A founding member of European Nuclear Disarmament and of the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly, she is also convener of the Human Security Study Group, which reported to Javier Solana, and now Cathy Ashton.

  1. A longer version of this essay will appear in Global Civil Society 2012: Ten Years of Critical Reflection (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming).
  2. Independent International Commission on Kosovo, The Kosovo Report (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).
  3. Report of the Panel on United Nations Peace Operations (New York: UN, 2000), http://www.un.org/peace/reports/peace_operations/docs/full_report.htm.
  4. International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, The Responsibility to Protect (Ottowa: International Development Research Centre, 2001), http://www.iciss-ciise.gc.ca.
  5. Mary Kaldor, “A Decade of Humanitarian Intervention,” Global Civil Society 2001 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), chap. 5, http://www.lse.ac.uk/archived/global/Publications/Yearbooks/2001/2001chapter5.pdf.
  6. Kofi Annan, “Secretary-General’s Remarks at Sarajevo Memorial Ceremony,  November 17, 2002,” UN Information Service, news release, November 19, 2002, http://www.unis.unvienna.org/unis/pressrels/2002/sgsm8502.html.
  7. See Tim Allen, Trial Justice: The International Criminal Court and the Lord’s Resistance Army (London: Zed Books, 2006).
  8. Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Multilateral Peace Operations Database, http://www.sipri.org/research/conflict/pko/multilateral.
  9. Anne Orford, International Authority and the Responsibility to Protect (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 17.
  10. Victoria Holt and Glyn Taylor, Protecting Civilians in the Context of UN Peace-keeping Operations (New York: UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations, 2009), http://www.peacekeepingbestpractices.unlb.org/PBPS/Pages/Public/viewdocument.aspx?id=2&docid=1014.
  11. Mary Martin, “The European Union in the Democratic Republic of Congo—A Force for Good?” in The European Union and Human Security: External Interventions and Missions, ed. Mary Martin and Mary Kaldor (London: Routledge, 2009).
  12. Marlies Glaius, The International Criminal Court: A Global Civil Society Achievement (London: Routledge, 2006).
  13. Iavor Rangelov and Rudi Teitel, “Global Civil Society and Transitional Justice,” in Global Civil Society 2011: Globality and the Absence of Justice, ed. Martin Albrow and Hakan Seckinelgin (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan).
  14. Condoleezza Rice, “Campaign 2000: Promoting the National Interest,” Foreign Affairs, January/February 2000.
  15. US Department of the Army, The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).
  16. US Department of State, Leading Through Civilian Power: The First Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (Washington, DC: US Department of State and USAID, 2010), http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/153108.pdf.
  17. Council of the European Union, Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Conflict in Georgia Report, September 2009, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/shared/bsp/hi/pdfs/30_09_09_iiffmgc_report.pdf.
  18. Human Security Report Project, Human Security Report 2009/2010, http://www.hsrgroup.org/human-security-reports/20092010/overview.aspx.